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Reflections on a 30 50 Year History

…as told from the perspective of Rob Bertrand

One night several years ago, a group of us were gathered around the computer in the radio station’s office reviewing the current program grid. Our program director was seated at the keyboard making some final adjustments before she posted it in the lobby. Seeing the screen completely filled with names made me very proud, and brought on a flashback to the fall of 1996 when I began at what was then WRLC-AM.

A similar scene in those days consisted of a group of people huddled around a board that was screwed to the wall, hammering in push-pins that held up little white scraps of handwritten paper. There were many fewer names on the wall then. There was no office – only a metal cabinet with a padlock on it that sat out in the lobby. There were no couches, only a few broken padded chairs and other furniture that we inherited when no one else at the University wanted it. The rack in the air studio held a few cheap CD players that had seen a long life and now rarely worked, a tape deck, and a worn block of wood with some buttons on it. There was a mic that sat in front of the funky looking air console on a little stand held together with duct tape, connected by a scraggly gray wire that trailed off into an abyss of wire and dust balls. It had been quite some time since the studios had seen a technically savvy staff.

Sounds pretty dismal, doesn’t it? It might have been fairly depressing in terms of what one might expect from a radio station, but I was still so excited to be there. RLC was filled with an incredibly dazzling array of friendly freaks – some more friendly than others, some more freakish than others. The light on the horizon at that time was the transmitter that was about to be re-installed on top of Tillett Hall that would allow people to get WRLC in their cars on campus at 1150 AM. For a while, you could only receive the station on 1110 AM in your dorm room on Livingston.

Despite everything that WRLC was lacking technically, the group of people that it attracted to the confines of its walls were some of the most interesting people I have ever met. That continues to be the case today, though the station has become much more legitimate and our DJ’s voices echo far beyond the confines of the Livingston Campus. I marvel at everything that this station has embodied for during my years here. I watched it go through wonderful changes during my tenure as General Manager, and I continued to watch it evolve from the more distant role of “advisor.”

I wonder what the group of students who started the station in 1971, two years after Livingston’s founding, were thinking when they embarked upon this adventure. It had to have been even more different back then. The studios were tucked away in a corner of Yorba Lounge in Tillett Hall (which then functioned as the student center) and AM was still a very listened-to band on the radio. Was it as cool then as it is now?

Our archives tell us that the station went through many changes in the 70’s. It was eventually moved to a more promising suite on the second floor of Tillett, where the staff soon found themselves in a few financial and political scandals. Those who restarted the station around 1979 tried to wipe the slate clean by changing the call letters to WLBS (the Livingston Broadcasting System).

The new student center was built in 1986 and WLBS was moved into a professionally designed suite filled with brand new equipment, two studios, an office, a record library, and a newsroom. While its new surroundings were a vast improvement over the corner of the second floor of Tillett, the station was still on the air at 640 AM. In 1990, the general manager/chief engineer at the time formed a sort of “unofficial” partnership with the Highland Park High School radio station that was broadcasting in cooperation with Piscataway High at 90.3FM.

Unfortunately, the digital technology that we have access to today did not exist then, and the station was beaming its signal over to PHS via what is called a “Remote Pickup Unit.” Basically, this setup is a low-power transmitter and a receiver that allows you to send audio from one place to another. The problem? You need a license to operate it… and WRLC did not have one. The FCC caught wind of this after someone filed a complaint, and one fateful day in 1990 a few enforcement engineers from the Commission visited the Student Center and shut the station down. There were no fines issued and equipment was not confiscated, but it did not help the station’s image in the eyes of University and College administration. WLBS ceased operation for a while.

When it was revived with yet another new staff, they changed the call letters back to WRLC, for similar reasons that provoked the name change in ‘79. From what I have been able to gather, that’s how it stayed for the next six years. Staffs came and went. Some minor technological upgrades were made to the station. Budgets shrank. But worst of all, the FM dial had all but filled up since WRLC first went on the air on AM in 1971. There was no hope of obtaining an individual license for the station. Managers would quickly burn out from trying to run an organization that no one seemed to care about – not the students, not the administration, not the community. Who really wanted to commit themselves to a station that few people could even pick up on their radios?

When I walked through the doors of the station in September of 1996, I was definitely disheartened to learn that the station was only AM carrier current. But, like many others, I stayed. After I had been there all of two days, I was elected chief engineer and began fixing what I could. I had never worked in radio before, but I felt that I could figure it out (and like many of those who came before me, I eventually did).

I fell in love with WRLC and the people associated with it. The station still didn’t go very far in terms of broadcast range, but we were at least having fun. Since we weren’t licensed, we could play or say anything over the air and it didn’t matter. It was definitely less constricted than it is now, though there were only about 15 DJs who thought it was cool enough to stay at a station that no one could hear.

Soon into my term as General Manager in the fall of 1997, I convinced the Dean to let me spend a good chunk of the station’s money on a survey to see if there were any frequencies available. The chances did not look good, but I figured that it was worth the risk. One way or the other, we needed to know if we had any chance of ever evolving to something better. We eventually got a letter back from the engineering firm who did the survey that told us we were basically out of luck – no frequencies were available in the area. The one ray of light, however, was that it told us that Piscataway High School had a radio station. My mind began whirring and didn’t stop for quite some time.

One afternoon I stopped by the high school, aided by a 16 year old PHS student named Chris, who had been hanging around WRLC longer than most of its staff at the time. He showed me where the station was, and the next day I came back when someone was there. I found a teacher who was more than excited to talk about WVPH… and the challenges that it faced.

Shortly into our conversation, we realized that a cooperative effort between the two stations might be just what the doctor ordered. The possibilities began to appear before our eyes. In six months we were standing before the Piscataway Board of Education pitching the idea for a time-share and mentoring agreement.

Everyone loved the idea. It would be the first time that Rutgers had a formal relationship with the Piscataway community and everyone involved was very excited. The future looked bright. Unfortunately, various legal complications along the way prevented us from filing for a formal joint license at that time.

A challenge of the station’s license renewal in 1998 by a local religious group further complicated things for the two parties, and the issue remained unresolved for years.

Despite the complications, we proceeded with our plans for the partnership. We entered into a programming agreement with the High School and began to supplement their broadcast day. In the beginning it wasn’t very pretty. We took two HiFi stereo VCR’s and recorded a week’s worth of programming on regular VHS tapes at RLC. Someone would then bring them over to the High School for their students to put on the air when they finished broadcasting in the afternoon. It was a nightmare to coordinate and not incredibly fun for our DJs, but it worked nonetheless. RLC was being heard on FM!

After our staff engaged in a semester or so of research, proposal writing, and politics, the Livingston College Governing Association (LCGA) generously funded us the nearly $10,000 we needed to connect to the WVPH transmitter. On April 7, 2000, the staff of the newly coined RLC-WVPH gathered at midnight to throw the switch and celebrate the first live HiFi FM Stereo broadcast to ever emanate from its studios.

The station’s staff continues to grow and evolve. There’s a management team in place with some great ideas and a lot of energy. Our DJ numbers continue to grow, as does the amount of feedback that we get from listeners. The programming heard over the airwaves of 90.3FM continues to be unique and stimulating. We are providing a vital community service and must continue to do so. The bond between Rutgers and Piscataway High is strengthening.

I think that the time will come in the not-too-distant future where RLC-WVPH will be looked to as a beacon of the local music scene in Central Jersey and serve as a source of programming unable to be heard anywhere else. The walls of suite 117 still have the magical power to attract the coolest people at Rutgers University and hold them there for very long periods of time. Every time I stand outside the back door and look in, a smile inevitably forms on my face. There are people there. Many of them know what’s going on. We have some pretty decent equipment. People can hear us. We continue to find our respective voices. And as it has for over 30 years, the spirit of WRLC still lives on. The name may have changed several times, but the essential power it has over its staff to challenge and inspire them still exists. I am incredibly proud of this station and all of the contributions to our progress that countless volunteers have made over the past three five decades, and I look forward to everything that lies ahead.

Rob Bertrand served in the roles of Chief Engineer, General Manager, and Advisor to WRLC-AM and RLC-WVPH from 1996 to 2011. This article was originally published in 2001 in celebration of RLC’s 30th anniversary.